The Old Guard (2020) - Gina Prince-Bythewood
The Old Guard has a number of things going for it; the premise is enticingly high-concept, the action is excellently conceived and executed and in Charlize Theron, the film has one of the few great action movie stars working today. Director, Gina Prince-Bythewood excels in understanding how and when to lean into these elements to exploit her material and make a, for the most part, incredibly entertaining and thrilling actioner.
The setup is simple. Theron is Andromache, a centuries-old immortal, who along with a small band of fellow immortals, have throughout history become mercenaries fighting for good. When we meet Andromache though she is jaded from this seemingly endless struggle and beginning to question whether the team's actions have had a positive effect on the world. This is the central theme at play in the film; whether we can do good, and fight against the seemingly constant tide of evil and oppression.
When we meet Andromache (Charlize Theron) and her merry band of immortals; Sebastian (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) they are recruited by ex CIA operative James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to help rescue some children in Sudan. We soon learn that these types of impossible, covert operations are exactly what The Old Guard have spent the last hundreds of years doing. However, this time, Copley has set them up, having spent years researching and investigating the group. At the same time, in Afghanistan, marine, Nile (a superb KiKi Layne), is killed while taking down a target, only to recover without a scratch on her. Alerted to her presence, Andromache sets out to find Nile and bring her into the group.
The two separate storylines often tug with each other for prominence on the story. And while the plot the capture the Old Guard by Copley and his nefarious pharmaceutical CEO employer Steven Merrick (Harry Melling) is what drives the plot and generates all of the key actions sequences, its the story of Andromache, Nile and the Old Guard which is the most engaging and interesting strand of the film. As Nile comes to terms with her newfound immortality, we also learn of the consequences of her sudden appearance on the existing band and begin to realise that being immortal isn't all it's cracked up to be. This is an admittedly unoriginal element but is handled deftly through strong writing and characterisation. Screenwriter Greg Rucka also wrote the graphic novel on which the film is adapted.
While Merrick hunts down the group in an attempt to unlock the secrets of immortality, prolong or save lives and make a lot of money for his pharmaceutical company, we slowly learn about who The Old Guard is, and through Nile, begin to understand more about the lives they've had to lead, how they've used their immortality for good, whilst also carrying scars, guilt and regrets with them. The relationship between Joe and Nicky being a particular highlight, both in terms of how the film handles and depicts their relationship, but also in Kenzari and Marinelli's excellent performances. The weakest or least developed character here is Sebastian. The newest (or youngest) immortal his motivations are unclear and underdeveloped, meaning a plot twist ends up feeling too obvious and too manufactured to serve plot development rather than character.
Unsurprisingly the real star of The Old Guard is Andromache herself. Theron imbues the character with a jadedness that is only really hinted at in the backstory and flashbacks that are used sparingly throughout the film. Instead, we sense and understand how weary she's become over the millennia and how she's come, at this stage and in the world we live in today, to question whether their actions have actually made any difference to the world. When she recruits Nile into the team, it's less to have another person capable of supporting their covert actions and more driven by the loneliness and isolation living forever will inevitably bring. And in the action sequences, Theron showcases while she is amongst the very best action heroes in modern cinema. Credit should also go to Prince-Bythewood for clearly understanding the riches Theron brings.
The real appeal here, beyond the rich concept and history of the characters, is the action. Each of the fight scenes feels unique and although there is nothing revolutionary about the action choreography it is grounded in character to such an extent that you never doubt for a second that the Old Guard hasn't been a team for hundreds of years. A couple of sequences, in particular, are excellently and breathlessly choreographed to showcase the unity and closeness of this unit. It's an exemplary way of using action to develop character and relationships.
If there are issues with the film, they are twofold. Firstly, there isn't nearly enough backstory for The Old Guard and their lives over the centuries. One suspects this has been held back for the inevitable sequels (a final scene heavily hints at greater world-building to come in a sequel). But the concept is so enticingly good that the film left me craving more. I wanted to see more of Andromache and her team through the centuries. I wanted to see more of Joe and Nicky when they first met, and how their relationship strengthened and solidified. Secondly, the plot of Merrick and he desire to capture the Old Guard to exploit their DNA and perhaps more questioningly, the gullibility and ignorance of Copley in believing that what he was doing was for the good of mankind felt significantly underwritten and Merrick in particular felt like a very weak villain.
The Old Guard is an entertaining, sometimes excellent action thriller with a superb lead performance from Charlize Theron in a roll made for her unique set of talents. Thanks to a strong supporting cast, refreshing, unexpected characters, brilliant action sequences and a great concept The Old Guard escapes its plot contrivances and weak villains to be a thoroughly entertaining and worthy entry into the action genre. It deserves to find a big audience and possibly become a welcome franchise.